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'Race is still on'

8-18-02, 2:00 a.m. Updated:
8-18-02, 9:30 p.m.


After watching tape Sunday of the Bengals' 22-10 victory over the Colts, Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau said his top three quarterbacks will play this Saturday against New Orleans and that, "the race is still on."

LeBeau said Sunday night he expects to start Jon Kitna against the Saints with indications that Gus Frerotte will follow Kitna and Akili Smith will do what he's done in the first two games and finish up. The third pre-season game is traditionally the outing the starters play deep into the second quarter, but the Bengals are still trying to settle the quarterback derby.

On Saturday night in Indianapolis, Smith completed his Harry Potter-like transformation.

You know who just won't go away. Smith officially evolved from spoiled bust to people's choice underdog (check fan poll) as LeBeau staved off his decision on an Opening Day quarterback for another week.

For the second straight week in this preseason, Smith engineered a Bengals' come-from-behind victory by leading Cincinnati to four second-half scoring drives in the victory over the Colts.

Yet even though he has doubled the number of scoring drives of Kitna and Frerotte combined with six in the first two games (the last a 92-yard clock-killer), he is probably still number three in what has become a rather strange quarterback derby. And after the game, he knew he might not start this preseason.

"Whatever the coaches say is fine with me," said Smith after completing a mistake-free nine of 16 passes for 53 yards. "If they want me to come in the second half again next week, I'll try to do it again. Whatever they say, I'll roll with it.

"It's up to the coaches. That's a controversial question right there. There's been enough controversy," said Smith of his star-crossed career since the Bengals took him third in the 1999 NFL Draft. "I'm having so much fun (considering) all the stuff that's been going on in my career here.'

The only thing LeBeau could say in his post-game news conference is that he won't name an Opening Day quarterback this week, but merely a starter for the New Orleans game that looks to be Kitna.

"It looked to be the kind of game that would be hard to make a determination of any kind," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski after watching the teams combine for 24 penalties and four turnovers. "I do know this. I feel good about all three of our quarterbacks. All you can really say is we've got three very good quarterbacks and you can win games with all three."

Frerotte, who had been seen as kind of a favorite son because of his one-year contract, threw an interception for the second straight game and it produced the Colts' only touchdown on nickel back Nick Harper's 77-yard return.

Kitna can be perceived as the leader in the clubhouse because he has done nothing to lose the job he won last preseason. He worked just one complete series,

but he was as efficient as last week, hitting seven of 11 passes for 60 yards and producing rookie Travis Dorsch's first of two field goals out of the two-minute drill that importantly cut Indy's lead to 10-3 in the last minute of the first half.

Frerotte, who was supposed to play just a quarter, admitted that the quarterbacks "are making it hard," on the coaches whom have to make the call. But he has no idea where he stands after completing six of 10 passes for 56 yards in three series. Particularly in conditions completely alien to the regular season.

"I don't know," Frerotte shrugged. "I had three series. Jon had two. It's hard to decide in two or three series. That's not the way football is played. Football is a full game, four quarters. Some things don't happen until late in the game, until you're warmed up, or you figure them out. For me, I don't know what is going to happen. I'm confident in my skills. I'm confident I can lead this team and I'm going to keep representing myself that way."

Football is not going for it on fourth-and-9 from the Colts 35 with less than two minutes left in the first quarter. But LeBeau hadn't seen Frerotte do much of anything because the Colts had the ball for the game's first eight minutes, so he had Frerotte go for it and LeBeau said, "You can put that one on the old coach."

But Frerotte put it on himself. He had a lot of time to throw, but by the time he did, pressure from the inside jostled his arm as he threw.

The pass wobbled in the direction of wide receiver Ron Dugans. Dugans appeared to be open in the right flat, but the ball went right to Harper, a second-year cornerback who barely got touched going down the left sideline.

"I was waiting, waiting for my guy to get open and if you wait too long, eventually they're going to get a push. It got my arm a little bit, but it's no excuse," Frerotte said. "Maybe I could have stepped away from it, but I was trying to go down field and it's hard doing that watching the rush."

Meanwhile, Smith, who used to wait in the pocket like a guy on the corner waiting for the 9:20 bus, looks like a different guy. Take his first scoring drive, which resulted in Neil Rackers' 42-yard field goal that cut the Colts lead to 10-6 with 6:12 left in the third quarter.

He ran when he had to (19 yards on third-and-five), protected the ball when he had to (took a seven-yard sack carefully covering the ball as opposed to his 2000 sack-fumble routine), and got rid of it quickly in the right spot to make sure Rackers had a shot (a four-yard muscle job to Dugans over the middle). The sack was wiped out by an offsides penalty.

He might have had four touchdown drives, but wide receiver Khori Ivy's holding call wiped out running back Curtis Keaton's eight-yard run that gave the Bengals a first down in the red zone and forced Rackers' 42-yarder.

Then Dorsch was called on to nail his second field goal of the night, a 33-yarder, after Ivy and tight end Sean Brewer dropped two straight passes that would have gone for a first down either time.

But Smith seems to know he's still running behind. He said earlier this week that he would have to do something "unbelievable," to get a start in the derby.

"I didn't do anything unbelievable," Smith said. "Four touchdowns. That would have been unbelievable."

He spent a good part of his rehab from last year's serious hamstring injury in Bratkowski's office. And it shows. Smith says he can see things clearly now, such as his pass protection calls and changes at the line of scrimmage. Plus, this offense suits him because unlike Bruce Coslet's system, decisions are based on coverages instead of progressions, like his college offense.

"I'm playing my fourth year in the league," Smith said. "People are expecting big things out of me. It's time for me to put up or shut up." I'm trying. I'm plugging away.'

The Bengals went to 2-0 in the preseason for the first time in a lucky 13 years Saturday, but there were no clear-cut victories in key roster battles beyond quarterback.

Dorsch and Rackers combined to go three-for-three on field goals, and running back Rudi Johnson hit 100 yards for the second straight week while Keaton bolted for 5.6 yards per carry on his way to 89 yards. And each scored a touchdown.

Johnson bucked over from the 1 with 3:36 left in the game to cap a 92-yard drive that he fueled with a 39-yard run on third down to swipe the clock for good with about six minutes left.

Smith kept the drive alive when he drew a late hit after a quick scramble out of bounds, and when his pass to rookie wide receiver Darcey Levy drew a pass interference penalty, and that was big in a game of turnovers, which is how the Bengals got the winning points.

Rookie free-agent linebacker Tito Rodriguez forced the Colts' Desmond Kitchings to fumble a kickoff that was recovered by tight end Chris Edmonds at the Indy 20.

One of the Bengals' 14 penalties of the night, a hold on backup right tackle Victor Leyva, nearly killed the bid. But Indy returned the favor by roughing Smith, and Keaton scored from two yards out to give the Bengals a 13-10 lead with about four minutes left in third quarter.

Rodriguez, a 245-pounder out of Central Florida, led a swarming backup defense that held the Colts' reserves to eight total yards in the first 27 minutes of the second half.

On a night Bengals rookie free safety Lamont Thompson offered his first NFL interception to end the game's first drive, the Colts turned the tide on two Cincinnati turnovers to take a 10-3 half-time lead.

In an effort to get a better handle on his quarterbacks Saturday night, LeBeau pulled a mid-game switch and went with Frerotte into the first series of the second quarter.

But like Frerotte, Kitna was hounded by the mistakes of his sloppy teammates. Just before the field goal, Keaton's 12-yard touchdown run was wiped out by rookie tight end Matt Schobel's holding penalty. A 15-yard personal foul on left guard Matt O'Dwyer when he tangled with Colts end Chad Bratzke also didn't help the drive.

"It's basically an even game, but we're behind on the scoreboard because we keep shooting ourselves in the foot," LeBeau said at the half. "All their points are off turnovers. We moved the ball pretty well down the field at the end of the half, but another mistake nullified a touchdown. We've got to get those mistakes tied down."

But Kitna overcame the miscues and so did the team. He converted some big third-down passes as he did last week in Buffalo. He found wide receiver Peter Warrick for one on a quickout, and he found Schobel twice in his NFL debut on throws of nine and 10 yards, respectively over the middle to get the first down.

Kitna, looking in command, gave way to Smith at the start of the second half.

As sharp as the Bengals looked on offense last week, they looked as out of sorts after the two-hour bus ride from Paul Brown Stadium. On Kitna's first two snaps, Keaton fumbled the ball back to the Colts and rookie left tackle Levi Jones got flagged for failing to line up on the line of scrimmage. The fumble turned into Mike Vanderjagt's 22-yard field goal that gave the Colts a 10-0 lead.

Two of Frerotte's drives started inside his own 16-yard-line when tight end Brad St. Louis and Rodriguez were called for penalties on a kick and punt return, respectively.

Frerotte's last drive was short-circuited when he couldn't hook up with Keaton on a second-down pass over the middle, and then on the next play Keaton appeared to have the first down on another pass, but linebacker David Thornton gave him a big shot and popped the ball incomplete.

Thompson rescued the Bengals defense from the cannon of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. They let him fire for the game's first eight minutes as he converted his first five attempts as well as two passes of third-and-10 and longer. But on a second-and-16 from the Bengals 32, Thompson did what Cincinnati drafted him to do. He ranged across the middle and picked off a pass attempted for Reggie Wayne at the Bengals 5 and returned it 38 yards.

"I give the pass rushers all the credit for that one," Thompson said. "That ball was just up there floating in the air and I went and got it. I almost had to fair-catch it."

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